Despite uncertainty, optometry grads are moving forward, together

Saturday, June 27, 2020

The “Class of 2020” may have the most appropriate name possible for a graduating class of optometrists. 2020 has been called the Year of Vision by eye care professionals around the world, and this class was set to hit the ground in the summer of 2020 with their license to practice in hand.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and what should have been the culmination of four years of intense study for optometry doctoral students was disrupted, leaving the students and the School of Optometry and Vision Science struggling to find solutions.

The fourth year of Waterloo’s optometry program is unique in that it focusses almost entirely on practical “hands-on” training. COVID-19 not only made that impossible, it also prompted the postponement of board exams in both Canada and the US and forced a detour on graduates’ career paths. Many students also cross the US border to pursue their practical clerkships, and the closing of those borders meant sudden work cancellations and quick moves back to Canada.

A gift that grows

Olivia Young holding her newly framed diploma

Working on her externship in rural Oklahoma, Olivia Young had to rush to get home before the US/Canada border closed. She drove sixteen hours to return to Thunder Bay; once home, she went into quarantine.

Not one to waste time, Olivia decided to put her time to good use. She began making cloth face masks to help protect people in her hometown.

Olivia volunteers her time and all materials. Instead of payment, she asks for donations to Roots to Harvest, a local program that employs youth in sustainable food production. So far, Olivia has raised more than $4,000 for the charity.

Internships in Alberta

Zoe and Jonah at the School's white coat ceremony

Zoe Stein moved to Alberta with her partner Jonah Gilham, also a Class of 2020 graduate, before provincial borders began to shut down. Both were able to find positions as clinic interns, a unique situation that some provinces offer without the requirement for completed board exams. Zoe had been waiting to hear if she would be able to continue with her residency at the School next year, one hurdle that has been resolved with residencies back on schedule!

“We have learned a tremendous amount in these past four years, and it's difficult to imagine being comfortable applying optometric techniques properly and confidently in September, after having had a 6-month gap in practice”, says Zoe. “I’m lucky to be one of the few in our class that has the opportunity to see patients throughout the summer”.

Preparing for board exams

Morgan Jackson in her graduation gown

The closing of the border found Morgan Jackson between final exams with the US National Board of Examiners in Optometry (NBEO). For students, board exams in Canada or the US are a culmination of their four years of training and require intensive review and preparation. Cancellation means a stressful extension of staying at their highest level of training and also puts their ability to start working as optometrists on hold. Morgan’s exams were postponed several times, but she was just recently able to fly from British Columbia to North Carolina to complete the final part of her American board exams.

Students who were planning to write the Canadian boards have not yet had that opportunity, but a tentative date of September 26, 2020, has now been established. In the interim, the class is working together to support each other and are collaborating online to keep their skills up-to-date. Video chat study groups are the new normal, and they have also taken advantage of the many webinars and other free online discussions available within the optometric community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Building eye care resources online

Diana Nguyen at the School's white coat ceremony

“Once the pandemic started, many students stopped seeing patients, and labs and lectures were also cancelled,” fourth-year student Diana Nguyen says. “During this period of uncertainty, I knew I had to do something to connect and bring the optometry community together and to keep moving forward in learning.”

Diana co-launched two eye-care information projects — an educational web resource called eyeX and an online community for patients with dry eye disease. Initially, Diana began co-hosting webinars with Drs. Richard Maharaj, Faran Vafaie and Karanveer Kamra on topics such as dry eye, glaucoma, specialty contact lenses and binocular vision. Through collaboration with both optometrists and ophthalmologists, these webinars have grown into the eyeX website.

Diana has also begun to create information resources for patients through @MyDryEyeSpace, an online community specifically for patients with dry eye disease, a common and debilitating condition. She writes educational blogs, interacts with patients through social media (Instagram and Facebook) and also helps connect patients with optometrists who specialize in dry eye disease.

“Now more than ever, people are searching online for medical information. Unreliable resources can be found on the internet and it can further perpetuate patient anxiety and cloud their judgement on diagnosis and treatment,” Diana says. “They need an online space that is patient-friendly, patient-focused and patient-centered and helps them find the answers they need”.

Toasting the Class of 2020

On June 18th, The University of Waterloo hosted a virtual graduation for the Class of 2020, and Dr. Debbie Jones was invited by the class to give an online address for their virtual graduation ball. In her toast to the class, she had this to say.

“Today you can now proudly say that you are a Doctor of Optometry. On behalf of all of us at the School, it has been an absolute honour and privilege to share your optometric education journey. We are so proud to call you colleagues. She reminded the students that, “we are always available for anything you need".

On Sunday, June 28th, our graduates and their families, along with faculty and staff, gathered online as a School. Together, we recognized and celebrated 89 new optometrists who are about to begin the next phase of their professional lives.

Congratulations Class of 2020!


Final group photo of the class before COVID-19

A final group photo of the class before they parted ways